Countering Violent Extremism programs in development, amid concerns they could violate civil rights

A 14-year old boy was pulled out of his French class to meet with a child protection officer about a “safety concern.” In a discussion in French class about the environment, the boy had used the term eco-terrorism. The child protection office proceeded to ask the boy if he was affiliated with Isis. 

This took place as part of the Prevent program, which has been broadly implemented in Britain as an effort to prevent the spread of terrorist groups. Under British law teachers and the members of many other professions are mandated to exercise “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism,” including identifying and intervening when children display identified “risk factors.” Those risk factors can include such simple things as using the word terrorism in class.

While the United States has no such mandatory reporting requirement, there are serious concerns that programs developed under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) initiative could lead to similar scenarios. CVE programs are attempts to engage a wide variety of communities in preventing violent extremism.

This summer, after running pilot programs in three American cities, the Countering Violent Extremism Grant Program was announced. The grants are available to non-governmental organizations to build prevention programs that “address the root causes of violent extremism and deter individuals who may already be radicalizing to violence.”

The programs are expected to be community-based and to increase access to appropriate services for vulnerable individuals. They generally work to educate community members (including teachers, and mental health service providers) about potential signs that an individual might be at-risk of becoming radicalized and then to take steps to provide those individuals with help. The first step in providing that help is often to report their concerns to someone in an authority position, including the police. Like community policing programs, CVE programs are designed to increase trust between community members and authority figures so that they can work together to address potential problems in the community.

No one doubts that specific, evidence-based programs of this sort can potentially have positive effects. A program developed in 2013 by community members in Montgomery County, Maryland has had at least one extensive evaluation that found several positive outcomes and no evidence of unintended negative effects. This program is considered a model for other CVE programs.

But programs such as Prevent, CVE programs in the U.S., and others like them in countries around the world have drawn wide-scale criticism over concerns related to free speech and civil liberties. The United Nations points out the problems of using the terms extremism, violent extremism, radicalism, and terrorism interchangeably, with little specificity in definition. In addition, while the promoters of these programs readily acknowledge that the path to radicalization is non-linear, and that there are no known “predictors” of future violent extremism, community members are still presented with list of supposed indicators that someone could potentially be on the path to radicalization.

The concern is that these broad definitions and unscientific predictors can easily lead to programs that end up targeting free speech or behavior that is in no way illegal or an indicator of potential violence, such as the mention of eco-terrorism in a discussion of the environment in French class. Other serious concerns regard the targeting of particular groups whose beliefs and practices do not match those of the broader society.

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the federal government over access to specifics about how the pilot programs were implemented. They want the government to develop guidelines to ensure that the programs are evidence-based, do not target Muslims, and that protections for free speech and constitutionally protected behaviors are included.

This past February the FBI unveiled an online CVE program aimed at teenagers. Titled “Don’t Be a Puppet: Pull Back the Current on Violent Extremism,” the website (see image above) is designed to “educate teens on the destructive nature and deceptive recruitment strategies of violent extremism.”  Teens are supposed to click through the website, which features a puppet on a string in a dark, cluttered series of rooms, to learn about who violent extremists are, how they recruit, why someone might be vulnerable to recruitment, and what to if you or someone you know is being recruited.

The website includes a list of nine “possible warning signs of someone planning to commit violent extremism.” The list includes using several different cell phones, talking about traveling to places that sound suspicious, studying or taking pictures of potential targets such as government buildings, and using code words or unusual language. Teens noticing these signs are encouraged to tell someone they trust. Parents and teachers noticing these signs are encouraged to contact the authorities.

In several places the website notes that thinking extremist thoughts or discussing extremist ideas is not illegal; violence is. But the overall message of the site is explicit. “If you come across something suspicious, don’t hesitate to report it.”

If someone in your school, neighborhood or community is doing something, anything, that looks suspicious to you, that person should be reported to the authorities. It is exactly that message that has civil liberties groups such as the ACLU so concerned.


The Guardian, “School questioned Muslim pupil about Isis after discussion on eco-activism”

United Kingdom, Department for Education, July, 2015, “The Prevent Duty: Departmental advice for schools and childcare providers”

United States Department of Homeland Security, “Countering Violent Extremism”

The World Organization for Resource Development and Education, “The Montgomery County BRAVE Model”

Williams, M., Horgan, J., Evans, W. June, 2016. Evaluation of a Multi-Faceted, U.S. Community Based, Muslim-Led CVE Program

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Don’t be a Puppet”

American Civil Liberties Union, “The Problem with ‘Countering Violent Extremism’ Programs”